There isn’t really what you would call a ‘tourist trail’ in Ethiopia; more a disparate set of locations and activities which are of curiosity or interest. The stone churches of Lalibela are clearly a large draw for tourists, and despite their remote location, thousands of people visit every year with most bypassing the arduous road journey from Addis Ababa, by flying into Lalibela’s miniature airport. Travelling independently by road is tougher, but definitely possible as proved by our eventful journey, leaving and heading elsewhere however, is a bit more of a challenge; particularly if your next destination happens to be on the edge of one of the most remote regions on the African continent – The Danakil Depression. The northern Ethiopian town of Mek’ele is the gateway to the Danakil Depression and the Afar region, a region which is not only one of the hottest, driest, and inhospitable regions in Ethiopia, but also has a history of violence, war and instability; it is no surprise then that it has also been at the top of my ‘to visit’ list ever since I was teenager, and so Mek’ele became our next destination, but how to get there?
Getting between Lalibela and Mek’ele can be an expensive pastime with hiring a private 4x4 or flying being the recommended way of completing the journey. Considering our budget rarely allowed for any more luxury than a third coffee, a private 4x4 or plane ticket were out of the question. Fortunately, I have previously written about how I’m a huge advocate of travelling by the humble bus, so there was really no other option but to practice what I preach, and put the Ethiopian bus system to the test. We didn’t get off to the best start. After asking around, we discovered that there were no direct busses from Lalibela to Mek’ele. In addition, the route was over 400km, on roads of varying quality. We knew it was going to be a bit of an ask to make it to Mek’ele in a day; still, it would be an experience if nothing else, and when some people laughed at our enquiries, and told us that it would be almost impossible to make it in a day, we had no other option but to accept this as a challenge, and commit ourselves to spending several hours crammed into the back of various busses, with no other plan than relying on chronic optimism to get us where we wanted to go.
We were up at the crack of dawn to head down to Lalibela’s tiny bus station with the aim of proving the doubters wrong and getting to Mek’ele within the day. Considering how hard the 4x4 had to work to negotiate the lunar landscape we had seen on our way into Lalibela, the rust bucket of a bus sat quietly on the dusty forecourt, didn’t fill us with confidence. The bus was half full by the time we arrived, and not wanting to stand for the inevitably bouncy ride, we had to work quickly; we took it in turns to scurry up the ladder at the back of the bus and secure our bags to the roof, to avoid a dubious ‘luggage handling charge’ which had come our way a few times in the past, bought some tickets from the sleepy conductor, and headed into the dim interior of the bus to find a space. Claiming a couple of well-worn seats towards the back, we tried in vain to retain any semblance of personal space as the void around us began to fill with people and their truly astonishing number of belongings; it didn’t take long to get to the stage where every conceivable space had been taken, at which point a dozen more people got on the bus, and the ancient engine shuddered into life ready for the off.
Whilst the driver let the engine tick over, assumingly to make sure the bus would continue to run and the mechanical spluttering wasn’t a fluke, an important looking inspector got on and began aggressively ordering people off the bus if they didn’t have a seat, which by now, numbered well over half of the passengers. The people being kicked off didn’t seem too bothered with this turn of events, which, considering this was the only bus of the day leaving Lalibela in any direction, seemed a little strange; so unconcerned were these passengers with being told to leave, most of them actually left their luggage on the bus, and began running towards the main road instead. The reason for this odd behaviour became clear as the bus slowly pulled out of the bus station and stopped immediately outside the gates to pick up all of the ejected passengers, who duly retook their standing positions, before continuing with our journey, all within plain sight of the aggressively officious inspector who, as long as these shenanigans weren’t happening in his bus station, seemed happy for any number of rules to be flaunted, he even gave us a little wave as we picked up a mediocre speed, and vibrated our way around the first of many corners.
The trip from Lalibela to Gashena was dominated by the sweet, tangy smell of sour milk emanating from piles of unwashed blankets which formed the bulk of our cargo; the man in front of me was wearing a particularly potent example, and with the outdoor temperature deemed too cold, and the road too dusty for the windows to be opened, it was a smell which slowly engulfed the entire bus and everything on it, including me, and would unfortunately stay with me for quite some time. The sun was well up by the time we reached Gashena, the familiar town on the crossroads, home to the hordes of entrepreneurial teenagers who, like over eager apprentice contestants, once again seemed dead set on finding us a bus and in the process, themselves a nice cut of our fare. Using our best teaching behaviour management techniques honed from years of working with edgy teenagers, we managed to dodge the various wannabe brokers, and find our way to the bus station where we negotiated a reasonable deal on a minibus heading to a town called Weldiya. We had never heard of it, but after consulting the map, it was roughly in the right direction, so we jumped on.
Before leaving, we noticed several of our fellow passengers stocking up on black plastic bags containing half a dozen tiny limes; Rather than eat the limes, they were bitten in half and held under people’s noses for a reason which didn’t become clear until we had zipped round enough nauseating corners for the small girl sat next to me to begin vomiting – the limes were believed to stave off losing your breakfast, whilst the black plastic bags provided a handy place to keep it if the limes failed to work. Surprisingly the vomit wasn’t the most uncomfortable part of this journey, that accolade was reserved for the 90 minutes of gut wrenching pain that only the fullest bladder can provide, remaining until we had arrived in Weldiya and I was finally able to relieve myself in a small cupboard next to the bus station housing what at first looked like a damp ant hill, but on closer inspection revealed itself to be Ethiopia’s fullest squat toilet, requiring a quite advanced urination technique to avoid being buried by a particularly unsavoury landslide.
The third bus of the day was fantastic, but unfortunately only took us as far as Almata, yet another tiny non-descript town we had never heard of. Although it was getting later, we were within a reasonable distance of Mek’ele now, and were confident we would be able to track down some sort of transport to achieve our goal of reaching it in a day, so we began the well-practiced bus acquisition technique of ignoring the touts and asking fellow passengers for reliable bus destination and ticket pricing information; It was during the ensuing information gathering, that we also got into an argument with a couple of teenagers who essentially stole our bags, carried them five meters to a random bus, threw them on the roof, and then demanded a substantial sum of money from us, much to our surprise and apparent amusement of the crowd of onlookers. The passengers already on the bus were reluctant to back us up, and the driver who appeared to be the mastermind of this particular strategy, began to get involved telling us that we must pay or the bus wouldn’t leave. We had seen this tactic used before, and we stuck to our guns and asked exactly what we were paying for. We were told that we were paying for a baggage handling service, because our bags were apparently “very heavy”. We looked at the lean frames of the now slightly embarrassed looking teenagers, the idea of them being able to lift anything deemed very heavy let alone launch it with ease onto a roof was laughable, but the skinny chancers didn’t seem to be in a laughing mood, and so the stand-off continued until one of our fellow passengers, bored of waiting, stuck his head out of the window and said something in a tone of voice which suggested he wasn’t someone to mess with, at which point the teenagers sulked off and the driver, obviously slightly disappointed with the outcome, promptly jumped in and we began our final leg of the day.
Leaving Almata, the scenery began to change rapidly. We were heading into Ethiopia’s arid north, and we began to see signs to the contested border Ethiopia shares with its northern neighbour Eritrea. The view from the bus window had changed from lush green mountains, to dry flat scrubland, the surrounding vegetation was becoming much sparser and desert like, the houses were now made of stone rather than mud, and the donkeys had been replaced by camels; we were getting closer to the Afar region.
Eventually, with the sun just dipping below the horizon, we limped into the regional hub of Mek’ele twelve hours after leaving Lalibela; hungry, thirsty, and little broken by the days’ travel, we were filled with a sense of achievement having put the Ethiopian bus system and our own stubborn beliefs to the test, and coming out with a win! We headed to the first hotel we could see, which conveniently turned out to be directly opposite the bus station, and found a decent sized room for 100 birr (around £3) and collapsed for a stretch after being folded into shapes a contortionist would be proud of for most of the day. We hadn’t eaten during our journey from Lalibela (I’m not counting the lime juice vomit reducer we were offered), so we headed out to find a restaurant which would make us the most food for the least amount of money, settling for a fancy establishment the other side of town where we ordered three meals for the two of us.
Wandering back from the restaurant to our more humble lodgings, we were made aware of just how much the environment had changed by the frigid wind rushing through town from the direction of the desert. We raced back to our room, to make the most of the scratchy blankets which had been provided, only to find a couple of fleas had beaten me to it. I got rid of the offending bugs, but wasn’t convinced that fleas worked in isolation, so thought it better to remove the blankets all together, and utilise my one from Awra Amba instead; at least I could now say that I was staying in a legitimate flea-pit.
Regardless of our dubious accommodation, we slept well, safe in the knowledge that we had not only achieved something that at the beginning of the day we had been told was impossible, but we had also made it to Mek’ele, and were now one step closer to achieving something which had been an ambition of mine for at least a decade.